Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Progress in 2021: Protecting Victims of Hostage-Taking From Torture


This article is part of a series of ‘In Focus’ pieces looking at some of our key achievements over the past year.
In it, REDRESS Legal Officer Leanna Burnard addresses the issue of State hostage-taking, looking at what the UK government has done to resolve the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe so far and what more can be done as her detention continues.

By Leanna Burnard, Legal Officer on Asset Recovery and Sanctions

Though their plight is not yet over, this year REDRESS has made significant progress in persuading the UK government to prioritise the cases of British citizens who have been unlawfully detained in Iran for diplomatic leverage in recent years, otherwise known as ‘state hostage-taking’. 

One such case is that of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian charity worker who has been separated from her husband and young daughter, who live in the UK, since being arrested at a Tehran airport in 2016, as she was returning to London after visiting her family in Iran.

This year, REDRESS helped put the issue of the arbitrary detention of foreign nationals for diplomatic leverage on the political agenda in the UK through legal submissions and campaigning on Nazanin’s case. This included submitting evidence to the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) which was relied on in its report ‘No prosperity without justice: the UK’s relationship with Iran. 

The UK government subsequently committed to ending hostage-taking for diplomatic leverage in its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, and jointly launched an international initiative against this practice with Canada, the US, and 53 other states.

REDRESS has also engaged and sought the intervention of the UN Special Procedures mandate holders on Nazanin’s case. Following her trial for a second case, the Special Rapporteurs on Iran and Torture, and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD), issued a communication to Iran expressing serious concern regarding the developments in her case. 

The UN Special Rapporteur on Iran also raised Nazanin’s case in his 2021 report to the Human Rights Council following a meeting with REDRESS. In August 2021, REDRESS made an unprecedented second submission to the UN WGAD in relation to Nazanin’s ongoing detention in Iran. 

A major breakthrough was made after REDRESS presented a medico-legal report to the UK government and the UN in March 2021, detailing the severe physical and psychological torture Nazanin has been subjected to during her detention. In response, the former UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab acknowledged publicly for the first time that her treatment amounted to torture and that it was “very difficult to argue” against the characterisation that she was being held hostage.

UK media ran extensive coverage throughout the year exposing the extent of Nazanin’s torture and highlighting the UK government’s inaction on the diplomatic protection advocated for REDRESS and afforded to Nazanin in 2019. Coverage included the BBC 10 o’clock news, BBC Radio 4’s The Today programme, and a leading editorial in The Times urging the UK government to change its approach towards these cases.

Most recently, REDRESS submitted an evidence file to the UK Government seeking the imposition of targeted human rights (Magnitsky) sanctions against ten persons involved in Iran’s hostage-taking. The dossier relies on evidence obtained from former hostages in Iran and family members of current hostages and establishes that Iran’s systematic arbitrary detention of foreign nationals amounts to State hostage-taking and torture.